The Hunger Games (Book 1)
Scholastic Press, 2010
384 pp., 12.99
Paul D. Miller
And so the book version of The Hunger Games is a commentary on life-as-performance (the film leaves this theme almost entirely out). In this world, there is no distinction between a personal thought and a public performance. We, and Katniss, cannot have a solely private or personal moment. Every thought is mediated by how it will go over with the audience. Katniss can't even understand her own feelings towards Peeta and Gale, her would-be boyfriends, because she can't distinguish between what she feels and what she thinks the audience wants her to feel.
In this sense, The Hunger Games is kind of brilliant, even while Katniss is kind of maddening. It is a picture of how social media affects our thinking about ourselves. The picture—Katniss herself—is not encouraging. While she is courageous, skilled, and loyal, she is also confused and directionless she has little sense of identity. When a generation's main mode of self-expression is a Facebook post, it is unsurprising that we do not understand ourselves. It is impossible to practice the examined life through a Tweet.
The logical implication of this sort of world is to doubt the nature of reality and resort to role-playing rather than character formation. If all of life is performance, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the two. And there is nothing to ground a lasting sense of identity or purpose; people shift their personalities to adapt to the circumstance, playing different roles for different audiences. One character spends much of the third book fighting the effects of brainwashing, trying to determine which memories are true and which were invented. In the finale, Katniss and her companions disguise themselves as refugees as they race through the Capitol under siege; following a violent encounter, they keep the disguise but pick up weapons, a discordant mix. "Who are we supposed to be now?" Katniss asks. Who, indeed?
Yet somehow, the author has made Katniss into a very likable and sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps it is partly because she is something of a blank slate, so the reader can project onto her whatever we like. Perhaps also because Katniss endures so much suffering, which naturally engenders sympathy. This—the presence of a sympathetic protagonist in thrilling combat—is what made The Hunger Games so popular.
The first book holds out the hope that we can stay grounded. In one or two passages, Katniss begins to reflect on what the Games say about the Capitol and the civilization that inflicts them on the nation, and she commits small acts of rebellion. She is moved to hold an impromptu memorial service for a fallen competitor, an affirmation of humanity in the midst of barbarism and a signal that she has not entirely lost her sense of self. And the climax of the first book, wherein Katniss cheats her way out of the Capitol's Games by appealing to the audience's sympathy over the heads of the gamemakers, is especially well-done (though sadly rushed in the film).
The third book dashes all hope. After a few surprising plot-twists, we continue to follow Katniss well after the action has ended in a heart-wrenching epilogue. It is a faint, dark echo of the end of The Lord of the Rings, when we follow the Hobbits back to the Shire, and ultimately follow Frodo to the Grey Havens. As The Lord of the Rings does not end with the destruction of the Ring and Aragorn's coronation, so Games does not end at the expected place, but follows the characters as they attempt to return to normal life, forcing us to consider the cost of what they have been through. Some passages are devastating.
Where this trilogy differs sharply from something like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter is in the kind of view of the world it conveys in this epilogue. There is no scouring of the Shire, no return of a king. There is not even a resurrection to do final battle with Voldemort, but something closer to the burning of Hogwarts. These books are morally ambiguous and cynical. It is not even clear if the rebels are actually good guys, nor who is responsible for one particularly horrifying event late in the final book (another example of the epistemological skepticism inherent in life-as-performance).
As the story fades out in an inconclusive and troubling ending, it is not clear if the battles were ever worth fighting. The cost of the war is extremely high, as most of the major characters end up dead or psychologically crippled. Nowhere in these books can we find the equivalent of Sam Gamgee's stirring declaration—"There's something good in this world, and it's worth fighting for!"—in the film version of The Two Towers. Instead, Katniss ends the trilogy as a kind of embittered pacifist misanthrope, damning all of humanity for its endless cycle of death and violence and unable to come to terms with her role in it all. This is a time-honored perspective on life, found in better writers like Voltaire and perhaps Hemmingway, and to Collins' credit it does not come off as trite or clichéd, but it is a view I, and most Christians, do not share. Despair offers precious little nourishment.